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Al Martinez

One Day a Writer, the Next Day, a Shameless Salesman

March 19, 2001|Al Martinez

A book tour is a degrading experience, forcing authors to schlep around town like over-the-hill hookers, trying to convince potential buyers that what they offer is worth the price.

People who have no business saying more than hello in public are required to stand up and explain what their books are about and read passages from them that were never intended to be said aloud.

Afterward, they are expected to sign the books they sell--assuming they sell any--which is OK, since most writers are capable of spelling their own name.

Because L.A. is one of the nation's leading book markets, there are almost as many authors doing business in town as there are shrinks or agents.

More than 100,000 books are published each year, and a good number of those who write them end up in Southern California bookstores, sitting at little tables waiting for the crowds to appear and dying for a drink.

If you are Monica Lewinsky, they are lined up 2,000 strong outside the store, clamoring for your autographed book. But if you are someone who only writes and has not practiced fellatio on a sitting president, only family and friends will show up.

It's hardly worth the writing.

*

I mention this today because a good friend, Chuck Morrell, has a book out and is facing the necessity of hustling it. This is all the stranger because for the last 42 years, Morrell has been an author's representative, accompanying book writers around town to the speakings, readings and signings required of them as merchandisers. And now Morrell has to sell himself.

Let me be honest, although that is not a requirement in the Soft News Department. I have a symbiotic relationship with Morrell, in that I have just come off a long period of time hustling my own book, "The Last City Room," a novel.

Morrell was with me all the way, holding my hand, drying my tears and being upbeat even when the chairs before my book-signing table were occupied only by my wife, the bookstore manager and a mother who had pushed two chairs together in order to change her baby's diaper.

It is not new territory to Morrell. Most authors do not get big crowds. Those who do are often the people noted not for their literary skill but for their notoriety. Lawyers who lose big cases and starlets who sleep with monkeys. The aforementioned Lewinsky, also known as That Woman to those who loved and were loved by her, was one of Morrell's clients. The lines were so long that she had time only to sign her name, but not to personalize the dedication--which is probably just as well, given the limited nature of her achievement.

If an author's audience is small, he has time to write whole passages in a buyer's book before signing his name. Like: "To Emma and George, who took the trouble to drive all the way from Bellflower to meet me. I hope you enjoy the book. I began writing it (turn the page) one summer up at Big Bear. We had taken a vacation with the kids after Jill, my oldest daughter, had suffered a bad case of the measles and . . ." You get the idea.

*

I did not enjoy most of my book tour. The idea of a grown man begging runs contrary to my personality. I am not good at tugging at sleeves for 10 or 15 cents on the dollar.

"Ernest Hemingway didn't have to drag around town like Willy Loman with hopelessness in his eyes and desperation in his manner," I said to my wife one day as I prepared for a signing.

"He was known for killing bulls," she said. "Go out and kill a bull and maybe you can sell books to the picadors or whatever."

She never did like Ernie. She has this picture in her mind of him coming out of the jungle after a plane crash with a woman over his shoulder and a bunch of bananas under his arm. Or maybe it was the other way around.

"At first, I was hesitant to ask friends at bookstores to feature my book," Morrell said the other day. "But after I did it once, it was easy. Now I have no shame." A lack of shame is always helpful to an author.

His book is called "The Los Angeles Menu Guide." There's not a lot of writing to it, since it consists mostly of menus from 113 restaurants. Betty Shapian was his co-creator on the project for Angel Press of Santa Monica. But written or not written, the product still has to be merchandised.

I was part of a gathering at the Village Bookstore in Pacific Palisades when Morrell introduced "Menu Guide." He is a jolly, enthusiastic, effervescent, positive, well-intentioned kind of guy, so brimming with vigor that he almost bounces. At first glance, you figure he is either manic or on speed. He is neither. He's just, well, happy.

He read from the menu of a restaurant called Alto Palato and, by the hushed and tantalizing tone of his delivery, made an antipasti come across like foreplay: "Medallions of lobster," he half-whispered, "thyme-marinated pumpkin and fava beans drizzled with a citrus dressing. . . ."

"I'm a ham," Morrell said later with a jolly shrug. "I love talking."

I guess a book tour is made in heaven for a guy like him. He's got the kind of erotic touch that women love. God knows what he'll be able to do with the salsiccie e funghi.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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